Video games have always been a form of escapism in times of stress. They help us to relax, let off steam, and forget about our real-world problems for an hour or so. It’s little wonder then that so many people have turned to video games in what has been undeniably one of the most stressful years worldwide in recent memory.

Whether played on a console or a smartphone, video games are also the perfect form of entertainment for this pandemic. They can be played alone in the safety of our own homes and can be enjoyed even when you’re self-isolating. But human beings are naturally social animals, and even the best home entertainment can’t quite beat the pleasure and boost in our sense of well-being that’s provided by playing and spending time with friends or family.

Play together while apart

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This is why the video game genre known as party games has really taken off over the summer of 2020. These are multiplayer games suitable for a small to a medium-sized group of players instead of the cast of hundreds in multiplayer RPGs like World of Warcraft. They can be played with strangers, but are better with friends. They’re suitable for a social gathering, where you meet up in real life and play together. They are equally adaptable to being streamed online, so friends in different remote locations can come together in the gaming environment.

In a time of lockdowns and strict restrictions on physical socializing, it’s this aspect of online party games that has seen them take off. They’re a way to spend time with your friends while obeying the rules and staying safe. They let you overcome feelings of boredom and isolation, as well as allowing you to vent your frustration, anger, and fear. When many of us feel helpless and as though our lives are in control, winning in a video game can also be positively empowering.

Gaming moves online

Even before the pandemic, online gaming was becoming increasingly popular. Reliable high-speed broadband connections enabled seamless streaming of games, which could be hosted on the cloud rather than stored on a cartridge or downloaded onto your device. Simultaneously, mobile phones started to become the platform of choice for casual gaming, with gambling apps in New Jersey experiencing a record number of subscribers. Playing casino games online for real money has become a favorite stress-buster for experienced players and curious novices alike.

Iconic games

Arguably, two iconic party games have captured the public imagination in 2020 so far. One could also say that these each represented different stages in our response to the evolving COVID-19 crisis.

Fall Guys was the product of a small independent studio that didn’t have the benefit of an expensive marketing campaign. Nevertheless, the colorful, Battle Royale-style party game became a massive word-of-mouth hit in its beta run, setting new records before it was officially released in August. It was picked up by some of the big-name streamers on Twitch and attracted so much attention the servers crashed.

Despite changes and updates, Fall Guys was soon pushed off its platform by the runaway success of Among Us, but this was hardly an overnight sensation, as Among Us had been around since 2018. It just had to wait for the summer of 2020 for its moment to arrive.

A mirror to our times

Not only is Among Us a classic small-group party game, combining a whodunit with simple tasks and psychological interaction between players, it’s also been said to hold up a mirror to our times. With an invisible killer and themes of paranoia, guilt, and isolation, it requires players to keep a close eye on their friends and turn them in if necessary, all while showing how fear and distrust can tear a community apart.

Crucially though, Among Us is fun, and all the tensions can be acted out and left behind in the game itself. Some have said it substitutes for the in-fighting, gossip, and drama of office politics when many of us are working from home. The key moments occur in the meeting room when players throw out accusations, explanations, theories, and excuses in an attempt to find out which one of them is the killer. The personal interaction mirrors classic board games and even card games like poker, where the winner is often the player who can bluff their way through.

Party games let us come together virtually and express our emotions in a controlled, almost ritualized way. Tensions are safely released and defused, and we’ve spent quality time with friends when opportunities to do so are increasingly rare. It’s little wonder their popularity shows no sign of slowing down.